There can be no doubt that men are significantly under-represented in the teaching profession, and in the primary phase in particular. Is there a gender bias? And if so, why?
A unique bond exists between children and their teachers, especially at primary level: the teaching role is clearly in loco parentis and extends far beyond the formal requirements of schooling. This bond often leads to a teacher being physically affirming or comforting, behaviour that is normally appropriate to their role. When I taught at primary level, I was sometimes called "Mum" by younger children (I would affect a higher register in my response). A female teacher pats a young student on the arm in an affirming gesture of "well done". A child is hurt or in distress and "Miss" comforts him. Rightly so? Need we ask that question?
Recently, I was walking down the corridor of a large suburban primary school with the deputy principal. We passed a classroom of eight- and nine-year-olds and casually looked through the window. We saw the teacher physically comforting a girl who was crying, her arm around her shoulder, while the rest of the class continued working. "Did you see that?" I said to my female colleague. "What?" she asked, her face registering mild surprise. "What if that teacher had been male?" I asked.
Later, we discussed the challenge faced by men in a profession that depends on empathy and care, but where the expression of these qualities by males has to be bounded by a heightened probity never demanded of female teachers. It is more than merely "unfortunate" that when a male teacher touches a child in any affirming or comforting way, it can be seen as ethically ambiguous in a way that it would not be with a female teacher.
I believe that this issue prevents many young men from choosing a career in teaching. Many male students training to be teachers register concerns about what they deem to be the public perception of male teachers: that they might have a hidden agenda, some ulterior motive for wanting to work with young children.
This concern is not to be lightly dismissed. It is, no doubt, heightened by sickening reports of paedophiles working in our schools - even in faith schools. If there is one place where one would have believed a child to be physically and psychologically safe, it would have been faith schools.
But this once hidden evil - now rightfully, and thankfully, exposed and confronted - has been shown to be more widespread than previously believed, albeit the result of the actions of only a few individuals. In Australia, a royal commission is exploring and tackling this abuse. The difficulty is that it takes only a few swinish men to cast a slur on all male teachers.
Strong and sensitive
When I first began teaching, more than 30 years ago, we never felt this unease. We believed that men as well as women were valuable, indeed crucial, to teaching. (We still do, of course.) We believed that male professionals could be trusted to use their common sense, common decency and emotional intelligence to be good teachers.
We were also aware that some of our students experienced deeply disturbing and dysfunctional family dynamics, living with hostile, misogynistic and at times aggressive or abusive men. We believed that we could provide a countervailing, positive maleness: caring, empathetic, sensitive and nurturant, as well as strong. We also knew that, for some of our students, we would be the psychologically sanest and safest male role model in their waking day.
And we felt that we could provide a balance to the macho alpha maleness all too often seen in popular culture - in film, music and sport.
We need to be robust in challenging the stereotypes of maleness that feed the public malaise over the issue of men entering our profession. Fitness for teaching should not depend on one's gender. Male teachers should be able to confidently enjoy their professional role and contribution.
Gender inclusion should be normal in our profession; it is, indeed, necessary. When it can be celebrated, it will give young men the confidence to choose a profession in which they can make a difference.
The local school is still a highly significant social reality in a child's life and development. It requires men as well as women to perform caring, empathetic roles. This is as important for girls as it is for boys: they, too, need to see that the nurturant role is not the prerogative of one gender.
Let us confidently assert the importance of teachers in the lives of our children; men and women chosen regardless of their gender and for their abilities to teach, lead, guide, encourage and support our young people. Honour, decency, emotional intelligence and common sense - the foundations of essential humanity - are the touchstones of good teaching. Men and women alike have access to these.
Dr Bill Rogers is an Australian education expert and author of You Know the Fair Rule and The Essential Guide to Managing Teacher Stress. www.billrogers.com.au